I was having dinner with some friends earlier this week discussing the often judgmental Evangelical culture in America, and one of them – my friend Chris – remarked that one of the reasons that the church is in such a bad state and has these kinds of views is down to “not discipling people properly for hundreds of years”.
I think he’s right. For a very long time the established “Church” simply told people “this is how things are, this is what you have to do, get on with it, or suffer the consequences”. So people did – and when the printing press and the Reformation arrived, the access to source materials only made things worse.
Another of my friends says that “the greatest heresies come out of home groups”. I don’t wish to cast judgement on every conversation in every home group ever, but it seems quite plausible that without good accountability, in the absence of good teaching all kinds of ideas could emerge – from the prosperity gospel God who blesses people with riches, to the vending machine God who answers every prayer with a “yes” or a “no”.
Conservative churches have, to their credit, tried to find a solution to the problem: they tend to have fairly solid structures in place for leadership and accountability, and for group discipleship. This means that people learn regularly from one another, from scripture and from their leaders.
The problem is, as anyone who has read this blog before knows, I don’t agree with conservative theology. So having a well established factory for Conservative Evangelical Christians isn’t, in my view, a solution. Not least because I think some of the heresies (I’m accusing orthodoxy of heresy? the shoe truly is on the other foot!) that rot away the core of the Church are embellished in Evangelical subculture.
The “liberal” tradition has the opposite problem – in an effort to remaining open and inclusive to all, it often sidelines discipleship and structure as “restrictive” and “unhelpful”. Yet, as another friend put to me recently – and I couldn’t agree more – Liberalism has more to offer than simply being a “refugee camp for ex-Evangelicals”.
So I want to suggest that there’s a third way. We can be Liberal in our faith and yet learn and grow to be more like Jesus each day. I’m sure many liberals reading this will be saying “Yes, I already do that”. I’m sure many do, and I’m sure some do not – much as with those in Conservative groups. I suppose what I am trying to say is that there is, in my experience, often a lack of accountability and intentionality within the Liberal tradition – and a lack of mysticism and experiential discipleship in the Conservative tradition.
The key in achieving this and remaining liberal is, in my view, teaching people how to know God – not teaching people what to know. And with that firmly in mind, I would argue that we need the following ways of thinking about what discipleship is, in order to grow and thrive as a community of Christians:
- Accountability structure – having someone that we are are “accountable” to is invaluable. In the conservative tradition this is caricatured as a “telling off” session where sins are confessed and then absolved by prayer with an intention to change. Sound familiar? We haven’t really moved on from ancient Catholicism. What does a more liberal structure look like? I think it involves having someone we can talk with about our struggles, concerns, thoughts, ideas, plans – someone who can remind us what we said last time and ask whether we have moved towards or away from God.
- Rhythm and routine – I touched on this in my previous post, but to summarise – having a routine helps us to find and make time to listen to, speak to and follow God. I don’t think being “liberal” precludes anyone from not being lazy about their intentions. But it does mean that we can have grace and flexibility in the way we approach this topic!
- Mystical Discipleship (knowing God well) – often we carry our cultural (heresy!) assumptions about how to interact with God into our faith – we assume things about hands being together to pray, God being in the sky, etc. Yet we can often believe those things aren’t necessary/right/helpful at the same time. I think it’s important that we learn to experience God – whether that’s in song, in silence, in meditation, in doing, in communicating – I don’t think it matters how; as long as it works for you.
- Theological Discipleship (knowing about God well) – that is, having a good understanding of who the God we are interacting with is. If we do not describe God then we leave God to simply be an experience, an event. In naming God and in explaining God, we give ourselves something to grasp – and something for others to grasp, too.
- Biblical Discipleship (knowing the Bible well) – In order to know about God well, we need to know the stories of God in the first place.
- Academic Discipleship (knowing about the Bible well) – of course, this is where I believe the majority of conservative errors creep in. There are a great many assumptions about the truths contained in the Bible that have developed because of a particular course of thinking that has stuck. We need, as liberals, to think well about the Bible and to know well how to understand it – that means understanding the context of its texts. In doing so, we can learn that it really is possible to bring together the concepts of homosexuality, women in leadership, and so on – with sound scriptural knowledge.
- Personal Discipleship (knowing ourselves well) – this involves taking time to keep check on our own, secret, thought life – and the way in which we behave. Jesus talks about it being what comes out from inside that matters. So, whatever we believe, it is important to know ourselves well. I’ve borrowed this from counseling – the better we know ourselves, the more likely we are to be happy and to be able to change that which we are not happy about.
- Interpersonal Discipleship (knowing others well) – of course, it is not all about us. Life involves interacting with other people too, and we need to be good at people! Jesus was a people person (and arguably an introvert, too!) and we’re seeking to better understand how to live as he did.
Those are just some starter thoughts – but I do think that those of us who now find ourselves, often as recovering Evangelicals, in the Liberal tradition – can find ourselves feeling without discipleship, and without structure. As I’ve outlined above. I don’t think that needs to be the case. If we begin with Mystical Discipleship, and then help one another to understand what it is we are experiencing, we can build a framework, a way of seeing the world, which is both inclusive to all and helpful in enabling us to grow closer to God.